Georgia Slade has just been accepted into Toronto's prestigious Royal Ballet Academy. At just fourteen, Georgia is one of the youngest students, and most talented. With her ballerina muse, Gelsey Kirkland, in mind, Georgia strives for faultlessness in her dancing. But as Georgia tries to command her body to perfection, her home life is unravelling.
Her mother, a university lecturer, is becoming increasingly erratic and embarrassing. Her emotional theatrics are nothing new, but in recent weeks they have got worse and worse - swinging between rage and deep depression. Georgia notices that her mother's mood swings are focused on her father, alternately trying to gain his attention and rile him. An important psychiatrist, Georgia's father is rarely home, and when he is he pays little attention to his wife and shows clear disdain for Georgia's less-than-academic, dancing pursuits.
Georgia's only solace is in ballet, but even as she lives her dream studying at the Academy, she starts to notice cracks in the fantasy. Her fellow dancers are catty and clawing; beautiful girls all sharing the same aspirations of stardom, they quickly turn on the weak and expose miniscule flaws for personal one-upmanship. But even more frightening than the barbs of her fellow students is the critical eye her esteemed dance instructor, Roderick Allen. He is renowned and revered, known for his harsh treatment of young students and merciless critique of the dancers.
As Georgia tries to make sense of her collapsing home life, she draws closer and closer to Roderick, desperate for his approval...
`Various Positions' is the debut novel from Canadian author, Martha Schabas.
The novel opens on a scandal. There are murmurs and rumblings about the temporarily closed Royal Ballet Academy, and young dancer Georgia Slade is about to make a confession to her fellow dancer and friend, `Sixty', about the possible reason behind the temporary closure ... and then the novel backtracks, taking readers to months before, rewinding to Georgia's acceptance into the academy.
We meet Georgia Slade, who has been dancing from a young age, and is consumed by her love of ballet. But she is starting to notice her world beyond ballet, despairing at her lacking social circle. Georgia has few female friends, and is bullied at school for her ballerina physique (a chocolate bar is taped to her locker, imploring her to `eat!'). She is uncomfortable about her classmates burgeoning hormones and brimming sexuality - talk about playing `chicken' with boys makes Georgia uncomfortable and highlights her disinterest in being a `sex girl' for boys to paw. Georgia's closest friend is her half-sister, Isabel, who has recently left home for college but keeps checking in with Georgia, curiously concerned about how things are going at home, particularly between her parents.
In the week leading up to her Ballet Academy audition, Georgia notices her mother's behaviour is more erratic than usual. She seems angry with her father for being away from home so often, and questions his whereabouts.
When Georgia gains a coveted place at the Royal Ballet Academy, she is thrilled but nervous. Thus begins her `career', and attempts to make it as a professional ballerina. Georgia befriends the girls in her class at the Academy, in particular a globetrotting girl called Laura (nicknamed `Sixty', for the number she pinned at the audition). And Chantal, a beautiful dancer who is chubbier than a ballerina should be. When Georgia meets Roderick Allen, the famed and ferocious dance instructor, she is terrified of him, but desperate for his approval. It doesn't help matters that Roderick's reputation precedes him, and rumours of his ruthlessness send all the girls into dizzying terror.
When Roderick singles Georgia out, as a dancer with exquisite potential, she begins to have shifting feelings for him... from wanting his approval and guidance, to a misguided and devastating attraction she is ill equipped to understand.
First and foremost, I have to say that I don't think `Various Positions' is a young adult book (and when I say `young adult', I'm talking the 14-and-under age bracket). It's strange, but I have read numerous reviews that blasted the book for misrepresenting itself as YA - even though I'm not quite certain how it got that false label in the first place? Let me just contextualize and say that `Various Positions' is less `Centre Stage' and more `Black Swan' - the hint is in the double-entendre title.
In the book, Schabas is examining the rigorous and conflicting life of the young dancer. But her exploration reaches beyond the ballet industry, to become an interesting examination of young people, and particularly women, in modern society. And as the novel progresses, the ballet aspect almost falls away - becoming a beautiful backdrop to Georgia's personal story and evolution into womanhood.
Georgia Slade is a conundrum of a fourteen-year-old girl. When she enters into the Toronto Ballet Academy she is expected to have maturity beyond her years, to be the personification of grace and power that will shine on the stage and turn her into a prima ballerina. But at the same time, she is only fourteen, and combatting her burgeoning sexuality. She compares her flat chest to the bodies of her older classmates; their womanly curves and straining breasts. Roderick Allen is adamant that ballerinas should not be curvaceous or sexual - a dancer with large breasts will instantly turn a leg extension into something perverse, and a plie titillating, ultimately distracting from the dance itself. But Georgia's classmates are still teenagers, and they giggle and gossip about boys and sex like any normal girls. But it leaves Georgia confused and conflicted, when she doesn't see herself as a `sex girl'.
Adding to Georgia's confusion is her mother's increasingly erratic behaviour and rocky relationship with her father. Georgia starts to pay attention to her parents, and to question the beginning of their marriage - she starts to think about her half sister, Isabel, and Isabel's beautiful mother, Pilar, the first wife of Georgia's father whose marriage she always assumed ended long before Georgia's mother entered the scene. A veiled comment by her mother about `men being men' has Georgia paying attention on trains and in public, watching men watch women and thinking about them rutting, kissing and pawing in private.
Georgia's conflicting emotions run parallel to her instruction with Roderick Allen, and suddenly his hand on her lower back as she extends in arabesque takes on a whole new meaning.
When Georgia hunts for more information and education on her sexuality, and attraction to an older man, she makes some terrible online discoveries. A few days ago Benjamin Law wrote an insightful (and disturbing) opinion piece for `The Drum', titled `Sex education: far from decent', in which he questioned the `speak no evil' approach to sex education worldwide. A particularly horrifying aspect of Law's article was on porn as the new `education' for young men grappling with their sexuality, and how the distortions of porn are translating to those boy's first (real) sexual encounters. This is particularly fascinating in `Various Positions' - as Georgia uses pop culture references and her personal observations to make sense of her budding sexuality. She comes across older man/younger girl online porn, of the `Mandi is a slut' variety, and it completely distorts Georgia's view of her infatuation with Roderick. In this, Schabas makes some chillingly accurate observations - about how we view young women in society, and how sex is becoming a rite-of-passage sooner and sooner for young people. Another scene that had me tut-tutting for its pin-point observation was one in which Georgia's mother takes her lingerie (!) shopping, and the sales assistant claims that thongs and zebra-print are what the young girls are wearing these days.
Yes, `Various Positions' is about the rigours and horrors in the demanding world of ballet. And that aspect of the book, inside the Academy and the constant striving for an indecipherable perfection, was fascinating. Some scenes made my skin crawl, like Roderick Allen calling out Chantal (a bigger girl) to the front of the class and pointing out the fat on her legs. Schabas also writes about dancing from the heart, so there's no doubt that she has lived the dancer's life and has that impossible love-hate relationship with it.
But `Various Positions' isn't just a `ballet book' it's also an observations of women and girls in a society that (much like ballet) demands a certain, indecipherable look and mould for beauty that is impossible to grasp let alone represent.
`Various Positions' is a beautiful and challenging book. Written in breathtaking prose and making chilling observations, Martha Schabas's book is in a somewhat similar vein as Darren Aronofsky's twisted thriller `Black Swan', with a touch of Zoe Heller. Schabas is observing the conflicts of perfection and perception, of obsession and blind obedience. Chillingly perceptive, this book offers wonderful behind-the-scenes to the ballet industry, while also being a truly contemporary examination of girls' sexuality in society.